Belinda Bennett has held a rather high distinction in the cruise industry for five years so far.
In March 2016, the Saint Helena native became the first black female captain of a cruiseship by taking the helm of Windstar Cruises' 148-berth Wind Star (built 1986), a four-masted sailing yacht that travels the Mediterranean Sea.
Bennett, 44, began her maritime career at 17 years old when she became a deck cadet on the 6,767-gt passenger and cargoship RMS St Helena (built 1989).
She rose to the position of second officer on the vessel and subsequently held that rank on the SS Dalphine — a private charter yacht near Monaco — and ferries owned by Isle of Man Steam Packet Co.
She earned a masters unlimited certificate and joined Windstar Cruises as a second officer in 2005, before rising through the ranks to become captain of the Wind Star five years ago.
"Once I landed in the cruise industry, it definitely became a goal," she told TradeWinds.
"Open communication is key in this job. If you can talk to your team and get them to talk to you, life is a lot easier."
Bennett said what has not been easy is finding an employer that would help her fulfil her dream of becoming a captain.
"I actually tried to stay in the yachting industry but, after gaining my masters unlimited certificate, I came to find out I was a little 'overqualified' at that time and an apparent threat to the very male-dominated yachting industry back then," she said.
"So I ended up at Windstar, where I have happily been for the last 15-plus years."
She has not forgotten the days when she had to work harder than white male cadets to prove her worth as a sailor, but she holds no grudges.
"I had a chief officer, unfortunately, who made me work later than the sailors, so they would knock off for the day, and I would be left outside continuing to work until it got dark," she said.
"It really was a make-or-break-you time and, me being me, I refused to be broken."
She said she has certainly run into both racism and sexism over the years as a black female in a white, male-dominated field, but she somehow finds a bright side to this.
I am a woman who has had to work twice as hard, so it should make me twice as good, right?
"As I tell my guests on board, I am a woman who has had to work twice as hard, so it should make me twice as good, right?" she said.
Her hard work and determination have not gone completely unnoticed. In 2018, Bennett was awarded the Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service.
HRH Princess Anne presented her with the honour under the auspices of the UK Department for Transport and the nation's Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
The award, given to 20 recipients every year since 2016, recognises contributions that members of the Merchant Navy make to maritime safety, seafarer welfare, training and the blue economy.
'Above and beyond'
"They have gone above and beyond their duty for the benefit of others," then UK maritime minister Nusrat Ghani said when Bennett received the award in 2018.
"Belinda’s trailblazing is [an example] of the outstanding service provided by our mariners."
Bennett said times are indeed changing for the better in maritime when it comes to diversity, but further strides must be taken.
"The fact that the industry is still very male-dominated, it shouldn’t deter anyone coming to sea," she said. "And women are moving up in the ranks more than ever before."
Women still only make up 2% of worldwide seafarers, but 94% of those are working in the cruise industry, according to the International Maritime Organization.
"Being a woman, you have to work extra hard to prove yourself — even more than a man," Bennett said. "Some men might not like that, but that's the way it is."
Despite this harsh, unfair reality in maritime, she gives these words of advice to women and girls who want a rewarding career on the seas.
"Work hard, be strong and don't let anything deter you," she said. "I've done it. You can do it, too."
- Belinda Bennett started her maritime career aged 17 as a deck cadet on the on the 6,767-gt passenger and cargoship RMS St Helena (built 1989), before rising to second officer on the SS Dalphine — a private charter yacht near Monaco — and ferries owned by Isle of Man Steam Packet Co.
- She earned a masters unlimited certificate in 2005 and joined Windstar Cruises.
- She became captain of the Wind Star in March 2016.
- In 2018, she was awarded the Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service, which was presented by HRH Princess Anne on behalf of the UK’s Department for Transport and the nation's Maritime and Coastguard Agency.